Head of Christ

The Unfairness of God’s Justice

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

The twentieth century political philosopher, John Rawls, summarily restated his most famous work, A Theory of Justice, as “Justice as Fairness.” Many who know little of his learned, complex argument may have heard of his “Original Position,” the thought experiment that serves as creation myth for Rawls’ social contract.

Rawls asks his reader to imagine a meeting where all parties choose a common social structure from behind a “veil of ignorance.” No one knows his/her/its origin, history, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, talents, abilities, or conception of the Good. This artifice, Rawls believes, forces participants to choose the basic rights and duties of citizens impartially, rationally, and fairly — and Rawls confidently tells us what they will decide.

Many of Rawls’ subsequent conclusions are appealing, but his starting point strikes me as a progressive “just so” story. For Rawls, it seems, people emptied of nearly every personal quality will nevertheless share his late twentieth century bourgeois liberal values.

This week’s lectionary readings envision a radically different universe. Read more

crux

Life Threatening

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

The news story reported that the injuries of the accident victims were “serious but not life threatening.”  It struck me that in addition to being a welcome medical diagnosis, that phrase is also a not-so-welcome description of a very prevalent misunderstanding of discipleship.  Serious, earnest, studious?  Certainly.  But life threatening?  That’s just not in our frame of reference.

So what of Jesus’ words about crosses and losing our lives?  The usual reading strategy, most often unspoken, is to assume that Jesus was “a special case,” or that the things Jesus speaks of in this week’s Gospel passage are either historical relics or are addressed to those who live “way over there” in uncivilized places where fanatics run crazy.  Put this interpretation of the Gospel passage with an Epistle reading for the week that one commentary calls “a miscellany of moral exhortations,” and you have a nice little collection of texts suitable for a Sunday in the long sleepy stretch of Ordinary Time.

Craig Hovey will have none of that.  He writes profoundly in To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church that every church is meant to be a martyr-church even though not every Christian’s witness will be a martyr-witness.  The witness of the martyrs “is not only the business of a select few but the shape of the body in which all Christians share” (14).  Hovey argues that since no Christian can know whether she will be killed for her faith until the actual moment of death, martyrdom is an open possibility for every Christian.  If we assume that “we” are not a martyr-church, he charges, “we have ceased to live with a proper and appropriate antagonism to the world in attempts to preclude the possibility that we might die the death of Christ,” thus securing “our own fates as nonmartyrs” (18). Read more

flower in rocks

Wasteful Miracles

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65
Romans 8:1-11 OR Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23

With two millennia of practice, Christians have nearly perfected the art of explaining away Gospel demands. Excuse-making is, after all, a human strong suit, and it’s not easy to stop doing what you’re really good at.

A modern variant of the “that’s nice, but it doesn’t apply to me” excuse stresses how different our lives are from those of first century peasants. Farmers, shepherds, and fishermen are, for many of us, abstractions invisibly at work somewhere beyond our personal experience, black boxes in the grocery store supply chain, while the few among us who farm or fish for a living know better than to throw precious seeds along a rocky path, leave ninety-nine percent of the stock loose and unwatched while searching for a stray, or toss nets over the oarlocks and hope for the best without benefit of engines, fishfinder, or radio.

In contrasting my busy, technologically sophisticated modern life to sentimentalized myths of agrarian simplicity, I construct all the distance I need to miss the point – and missing the point is, after all, the unacknowledged point of much contemporary scripture study. I like to imagine that I would never be so wasteful and inefficient as the benighted peasantry of Jesus’ time. Read more

race in church

Passages

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

My friend Stan Dotson claims that texts are called “passages” because they offer us passage. They can take us somewhere.

The culmination of this week’s Gospel passage, Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one, as we are one,” takes me to a question posed by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: “How do black people and white people become one in Christ Jesus? And what does that look like?” (Free To Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line, p. 61).

Given the demographics of the part of the county where I live in western North Carolina, I could be totally absorbed in congregational life and never even have to consider that question. In fact, by exhorting my flock to become more involved in “church” as it’s commonly understood, I could conceivably make matters worse. As much stress as Baptist polity places on the local congregation, the temptation is ever present to narrow the scope of Jesus’ prayer to internal relationships alone. Read more

Luminous Darkness

“Luminous Darkness”

Epiphany 5A
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5:13-16

Who among those who have read the gospels does not know that Christ has made all human suffering his own?

Origen, “On Prayer”

On Sunday, when I read that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, my breath caught a little. I didn’t know him, of course, though I’ve admired every performance of his I’ve seen. (Oh, the power of cinema to make us feel like we know the actors we love—indeed to make us love them in the first place.) Hoffman was an actor of astonishing intuition and virtuosity. As one writer put it, “he could nail a part in one punch, summoning the richness of an entire life in the smallest gesture.”

It would be tempting to narrate Hoffman’s all too brief life and tragic death within the tired tropes of celebrity culture (money can’t buy you love; movie stars are desperately lonely people) but, thankfully, I’ve seen none of that in the moving tributes I’ve read to Hoffman’s life and art.

In particular, James Martin, SJ, recalls spending time with Hoffman in preparation for the off-Broadway production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot:

Phil, as everyone called him, projected a unique blend of relaxed intensity as a director . . . He approached the text with an almost scholastic seriousness, carefully attending to every line in the script . . . From time to time, to illustrate a thorny point, or to describe the emotion that might underlie a scene, he would offer a story from his own life. “Did you ever have this experience?” Phil would ask, and recount a tale illustrating despair, or hope, or joy, or betrayal or trust . . . When I asked Phil Hoffman about his directing style on “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” he readily agreed with the inherent strength of the parable—or, in his words, the personal anecdote—in its ability to communicate more than a strictly worded directive . . . In Phil’s words, Jesus was always suggesting, in order that the decision to follow or not follow was always that person’s own decision.

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